24 May 2018
Seizing the High Ground
The Great Game and Iran.
By J R Thomas
The ex-President may be staking his claim in virtual reality, but it is the current President who has hands on the levers (on the button even) and he claims the right solutions are not always the obvious and easy options. Yes; the moral high ground is in dispute again. Mr and Mrs Obama have formed a new TV production company, High Ground Productions, which is contracted to Netflix to make a series of TV shows with the Obamas as comperes. Apparently the shows will feature the former first couple in conversation with “fascinating people” on current social issues. It is carefully stated that the programmes will not be directly critical of the present administration. Note that “directly”.
The current President knows his way round a TV studio – usually whilst shouting “You’re Fired!” – but no undertaking has been given by his administration not to criticise his predecessor’s. Far from it; his repudiation of the Iran nuclear containment deal signed by President Obama is a clear attack on what he sees as a weak and ineffective strategy to stop Iran building nuclear weapons. Mr Trump says the whole thing was based on a false premise – that Iran would abide by the terms of the treaty and stop its enrichment of materials to enable their use in weapons. All that has happened, says the Trump administration, is that Iran has gone on with its domestic nuclear programme (easily converted to a military one), has doubled its oil exports thus enormously increasing its wealth and, adding that to the US$1.5bn paid in cash as part of the 2015 treaty, is now busy exporting its support of Islamic terrorism all over the world. Oh yes, and it continues to viciously oppress its people and crack down on any suggestion of dissent. The deal was a bad one even for the Iranian people themselves, who will, so it is suggested, welcome even the imposition of sanctions if it weakens their oppressive government.
Donald is not an admirer of anything done by Barrack, so his approach, encouraged by the seeming success of the iron fist shown to North Korea, does not come as a great surprise – indeed it was promised in his election manifesto and one sure thing about Donald is that he keeps his election promises. But those who like a good conspiracy story will also see in this the magnificent moustache of John Bolton, Mr Trump’s new national Security Advisor, who to describe as a hawk is to underplay the ferocity of hawks everywhere. Mr Bolton is a player of the great game indeed; he thinks Iran is a greater danger to world peace and to American interests than Saudi Arabia and thus anything that weakens the theocratic government of Iran is to be commended. If Iran becomes poorer then that will reduce its ability to fund terrorism; it will reduce its ability to fight its proxy war with Saudi in Yemen which will safeguard exports of Saudi oil, and it may provoke the restive Iranian middle classes to rise against the mullahs and in the long run bring a form of democracy to Iran.
There is also a Russian angle to all this. One of the mysteries of Middle Eastern politics is what Russia is up to in Syria, in particular in supporting President Assad, yet another butcher of his own people. Mr Putin is not a man noted for taking unnecessary risks. His method of engaging in foreign adventures is generally a little prod or jab, with a hasty step back whilst he sees what happens. Yet he has engaged the Russian airforce directly in the Syrian civil war. There has to be a very strong reason for this; and that reason seems to be his concern over Islamic fundamentalism in its terrorist manifestations. Assad is a sort of bulwark against Islamic terrorism, though you might be hard pushed to see a moral high ground there. And, bizarrely, Iran might be another, for totally different reasons. To be Iran’s friend is a little bit like buying into a protection racket; with the added benefit that not only will the guys with baseball bats not attack your shop, they might be persuaded to attack the rival business up the road. Quite apart, of course, from the fact that there will be serious business opportunities in Tehran if the American sanctions come into play.
Those who studied nineteenth century politics may well be muttering to themselves at this point “the great game’s afoot”. The two most powerful nations in the Middle East are taking on powerful sponsors; power blocs are forming; there are implied agreements, if not actual ones, of support in trade and military hardware. The lesson of history is that we learn nothing from history.
Certainly one thing Messrs Trump, Bolton, and Mike Pompeo (the secretary of state, who is handling the detail of the withdrawal) are learning is that the European Union cannot be relied upon to support American interests. The reasons for that are not hard to see. Firstly, there is the economic position. Iran was a closed economy for many years and is suddenly a rich one. That has lured business from all over the world, to help modernise ageing plant and kit, with particular enthusiasm from countries which have no oil reserves of their own. Business persons do not want this door closed so quickly and their governments, in Europe at least, do not want less oil or more expensive oil, and they do not want a major export market closed when European economies are still relatively low growth. But secondly there is political angle. The EU in Brussels does not like Mr Trump’s politics and Mr Junker and his friends are anxious to show that the oncoming proto European federal state is not going to be told what to do by the one across the Atlantic. And once again there is the Russian angle. Germany does not want to upset Mr Putin on whom they depend for gas supplies; and few European countries want to up defence spending at a time when budgets are creaking anyway.
We should not overlook one key detail in this. The US has not yet withdrawn from the 2015 agreement. It says that it will do so in the next three to six months, if Iran does not agree to a fundamental renegotiation. That would put much greater restraints on nuclear enrichment, on weapons building, on sponsoring terrorism, it would require the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and the release of western persons wrongfully detained in Iran. As Mr Pompeo says, it is a long list, but that is “a reflection of the massive scope of Iranian malign behaviour”. Given that, much of this is well evidenced and difficult to argue with, it is not surprising that the Administration in Washington is somewhat taken aback by the European attitude to its proposals (that includes the UK where our blonde haired Foreign Secretary has, surprisingly, argued against the proposed Trump actions).
Mr Trump though seems little bothered about what Europeans might think. Most major companies doing business in Iran have US connections and will have to decide which to give up. For all the current blustering, it is likely that most will withdraw from Iran. But Mr Pompeo and Mr Bolton, and the President himself, see a serious moral angle to this. What they are doing is smiting the bad guys. They are, it is clear, privately surprised and disappointed that the EU and European democracies do not want to join them on that particular moral high ground. Money versus morals; that’s always a tough one.